NearSt Founder: Shopping Locally Can Be Easier Than Ordering From Amazon

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If shoppers had the ability to go on their mobile devices, locate and order products from stores nearby, and receive them more or less immediately, would Amazon still be such a dominant force?

NearSt doesn’t think so. The London-based startup wants to give brick-and-mortar bookstores the power to satisfy consumer needs as quickly as possible by offering them a platform to make their inventories searchable online. With the NearSt mobile app, users can find the closest store that stocks what they’re looking for and reserve that product until they’re ready to go get it — or even have it delivered to them directly. 

NearSt founder Nick Brackenbury (who will be presenting at Street Fight’s upcoming LOCALCON conference in London on April 21st) spoke to us recently about the rise of the on-demand shopper, how the company’s technology makes it easier for small businesses to attract their local customer base, and entering new verticals.

Can you talk a bit about the development of NearSt? Was there a particular opportunity you spotted, or issue in local commerce you were wanting to solve?
At NearSt, we’re on a mission to get people back into their local businesses. It came about from a simple idea: How is it easier today to order a product from a warehouse on the other side of the planet and have it shipped to you than to order it from the shop across the street that already has it? The current situation is a bit ridiculous, if you think about it.

In the last few years, as shoppers, we’ve all been trying to find products nearby more than ever before. Since 2011, local searches like “Where can I find [x] near me?” have grown by more than 34 times. And we’ve all started using click-and-collect as a major delivery channel, traveling a short distance to get something when we want it, where we want it.

For us, the inevitable next step in this evolution of ecommerce and m-commerce is bringing the inventory of every store on every high street online, so that shoppers can truly find and buy anything they want from the shops by them. And that’s where NearSt was born.

I’m wondering if you can speak to any tension between ecommerce and local commerce, and the idea that local businesses can only compete with the online giants if they’re also present online. Is there a formula for success if you’re a brick-and-mortar shop feeling threatened by, say, Amazon?
I think a lot of local businesses feel like online is some sort of club they were conned into joining. They invested in a website, invested in a shiny new iPad ePOS system, and yet customers continued to shop from the big ecommerce players. Having your own ecommerce site today is like being listed in the Yellow Pages yesterday — just because you’re there doesn’t mean you’re easy to find.

Shopping locally needs to be easier than buying online to succeed. Today, finding a product on Amazon takes just a few clicks. Finding that same product in a local shops requires real effort: figure out the type of shop that might stock what you want; search for possible results, filter for those nearby, visit that shop’s website, search for the product and narrow down possible results, call the shop and find out if it’s in stock, manually reserve it for collection. Whew…

We believe that for a local business to compete, you need your products to be in an online marketplace that puts you on a level footing, based on your value — proximity to the customer. Uber did this for minicab drivers, JustEat and GrubHub did this for takeaway food, we’re doing this for local ecommerce. If all a customer has to do is search for a product, see where it’s stocked nearby, and tap twice to reserve it for collection, then you have a proposition that can compete on a level playing field with Amazon. Making this completely effortless and quick for local businesses is really important, so we’ve focused a huge amount of our development on making this a reality.

Are there inherent advantages to being a small merchant/brick-and-mortar shop? How can the value of being a small local business be shown to consumers in an attractive way, and help consumers choose that business?
One of the big trends we’ve noticed in the last 18 months is shoppers choosing real, tactile experiences over digital ones. ROPO [research online, purchase offline] has grown as shoppers find reviews online, then want to experience a product and talk to an expert about it face-to-face before committing to buy offline. Local shops are in a perfect position to take advantage of this. They have the expertise. They deliver brilliant, personal experiences. And there are hundreds of thousands of them! We just need to visualize this in a very fast, attractive way for today’s on-demand shopper.

One of the ways we help our bookshops do this is by automatically generating beautiful, artistic, photo-like images of the books they stock. The product needs to look real, and like something a shopper really wants to pick up and hold. We then combine this with making it abundantly clear just how quickly and easily the customer can get their hands on that product based on their location at the moment of the search: “Get this stunning book in just 18 minutes.”

Will the company be expanding into other markets besides books? How is the technology evolving?
We will indeed. Books are a brilliant launch category for us and has been a perfect proving ground for the technology. Throughout 2016 we’re bringing on new product categories every couple of months, with the ultimate goal of having every product in every shop in every high street on the platform at a global scale.

The technology is evolving constantly to make this dream happen, and we’ve already managed to achieve a number of things with local businesses that we were told was impossible just 6 months ago. Most of our businesses now respond to orders in less than 2 minutes, without any hardware or software in their shops, which is truly remarkable. So we’re very excited by what lies ahead for local commerce, and what we can achieve with local businesses everywhere.

Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.

Hear more from NearSt’s Nick Brackenbury at our upcoming conference at the Chelsea Football Stadium in London. Click below for tickets!